The Man Hollywood Loves to Hate : Film Buffs Don’t Want the Classics Colorized, But Frankly, Ted Turner Doesn’t Give a Damn
LAST MONTH, THE ACADEMYof Television Arts and Sciences had to move its evening with Ted Turner to the grand ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel to accommodate the people who wanted to attend. The overflow crowd was expecting fireworks, and the visitor from Atlanta lived up to his reputation, sparring with the moderator, former newscaster Joseph Benti, and with members of the audience as well. Turner chided a Russian actor who had portrayed an evil Soviet commander in “Rambo III.” “You needed work that bad?” Turner asked him. “No scruples when it comes to rubles.”
But these sardonic insults were only a warm-up. The crowd had come to hear Turner’s gibes at the Hollywood Establishment, and the 50-year-old media magnate did not disappoint. Indeed, Turner sometimes seems to go out of his way to infuriate the potentates of Hollywood. He has attracted the most attention by jauntily ignoring all pleas by the Directors Guild to cease and desist from the colorization of classic movies. Lately, he’s been on the warpath against the No. 1 network, NBC, and its parent company, General Electric. While addressing the academy, Turner denounced GE as one of the most corrupt corporations in America, to the delight of the audience, which was tickled by his attacks on the powers that be. He went on to say that he personally likes Robert Wright, president of NBC. “I don’t think he’s a crook,” Turner allowed. “But he works for crooks.”
Outspoken, outrageous, loud and bellicose, the chairman of the board and president of Turner Broadcasting System Inc. doesn’t have the smooth, politic style of other Hollywood CEOs. He hasn’t mastered the relaxed purr of an assimilated Angeleno, and he’s testy during his brief visit, complaining about the smog and about the lack of greenery at the Four Seasons Hotel, where he’s staying. Although he sweeps through Hollywood at least once a month, he hasn’t quite straightened out all the players. “I just saw Sydney Pollack over at CCA,” Turner says, garbling the acronym of Creative Artists Agency, the hottest agency in town.
In his palatial office at the CNN Center, his Atlanta headquarters, he seems far more comfortable and contented. “I’m not a part of Hollywood,” Turner says in his thick Southern drawl. “But then most of the people I meet out there are from somewhere else originally. Sid Sheinberg’s from Houston. The girl in ‘Moonlighting'--what’s her name? She’s from Memphis, Tennessee. They’re from all over.”
And yet, for someone who’s essentially an outsider, Turner has transformed the entertainment industry more profoundly than any studio executive. The cable TV business that he helped to create has redefined home entertainment, and the colorization of movies that he spearheaded has changed the way the world sees Hollywood’s heritage. His empire has mushroomed in little over a decade. Turner’s superstation, WTBS (now TBS), was one of the first cable channels and today is the largest after ESPN. Cable News Network, the first 24-hour all-news cable service, has not signed off since it started broadcasting in 1980 and now rakes in money. (Its operating profit for 1988 was $85.5 million.) Last year, Turner introduced a cable service, Turner Network Television (TNT), which he sees as a direct competitor of the three networks. He has hired actors, writers and producers to make movies for TNT, and they praise him for allowing them to tackle controversial subjects that Hollywood has avoided.
But his other major enterprise has placed Turner himself at the center of a controversy that refuses to die, in part because he’s done everything he can to fan the flames. Turner isn’t the only person colorizing old movies--other companies got into the act before he did--but he’s the most visible. As owner of the massive MGM film library, he has converted about 60 of its classic black-and-white films to color and plans to colorize more than 100 others. His enemies see him as a cinematic marauder, cannibalizing the past and diminishing the future.
IF TURNER ELICITSpassionate defenses as well as angry denunciations, he’s in a venerable tradition. He calls to mind the buccaneers who founded the movie business more than 60 years ago. Brusque, vulgar, tireless and often visionary, Turner is closer in spirit to Darryl Zanuck or David Selznick than to the well-mannered, well-educated bureaucrats who run most of the studios and networks today. Roger Mayer, president of Turner Entertainment Co. in Los Angeles, is a Hollywood veteran who worked for Columbia founder Harry Cohn, and he says: “Ted is definitely in that mold, though he has even more energy than the old moguls. He’s as decisive as they were. You get an answer from Ted in 10 to 30 seconds--provided you can find him.”
Turner has the boyish enthusiasm that characterized Hollywood’s pioneers. There’s probably no one in the movie business who’s as worshipful of Hollywood’s past glories as he is. His second son is named Rhett, and at the CNN Cinemas in Atlanta, he shows “Gone With the Wind” at one of the six theaters every day of the year. “I’d rather see a good old movie than a new one,” he says. “I love classics. I don’t like these violent movies today. America’s by far the most violent nation on earth. It wasn’t that way 40 years ago. But in those days, they made movies like ‘Boys Town’ and ‘Captains Courageous.’ Today, they make ‘RoboCop’ and ‘Rambo.’ ”
Turner’s feeling for old movies seems genuine, and he’s been praised for producing mint-quality prints of some of the color films he owns, including “Gone With the Wind.” Still, his foes wonder how he can take a paintbrush to the movies he claims to revere. When he announced plans last year to colorize “Citizen Kane,” almost always selected in critics’ polls as the greatest film ever made, he was deliberately baiting his critics. “I was doing it mainly just to rub their noses in it,” Turner says with a mischievous grin. He backed off earlier this year after his advisers told him there might be a legal problem with Orson Welles’ estate. When he made “Citizen Kane,” Welles retained an unusual amount of control over future showings of the movie. “Maybe we could have squared away the legal problems,” Turner says, “but I figured since we’re going to colorize most of the other classics, I’d throw a bone to the people who were griping about it.”
But if “Citizen Kane” will remain pristine, nothing else is sacred to Turner. Among the movies set to be colorized over the next two years are Welles’ second film, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” along with “The Big Sleep,” “King Kong,” “Fort Apache,” “The Letter,” “Grand Hotel” and “Camille.” And the more directors who squawk, the better Turner likes it. “Virtually everybody in America knows about colorization,” he says gleefully. “All the protests were great promotion. A lot of younger people would never have heard of these older movies without the controversy.”
Many independent stations around the country that had refused to show black-and-white movies have broadcast the colorized versions. The first 12 movies colorized by Turner grossed an average of $900,000 each for one-year syndication rights. Clearly the profit motive figures in Turner’s ambitious colorization plans, but it’s not the only incentive. Going down the list of movies to be colorized, Turner realizes something and screams to his secretary: “Dee, I want Roger Mayer to hand deliver a colorized copy of ‘Kings Row’ to Ronald Reagan, with a message from me: ‘It was your favorite movie; I hope you’ll enjoy it in color.’ And I want my own copy of ‘Captains Courageous’ in color.”
Turner doesn’t seem disingenuous when he says he likes the way his repainted movies look. “I took art in school,” Turner reports, “and I’m a painter myself. I think the movies look better in color, pal, and they’re my movies. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Picasso doesn’t do squat for me. I wouldn’t put a Picasso in my bird cage. If other people want to buy a Picasso, that’s fine.”
Turner grants that the first colorized movies looked like badly painted Christmas trees. “But they’ve improved the technology,” he says. “If you ever watched ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ or ‘They Died With Their Boots On’ in black and white and then watched them in color, they look better in color, in my opinion. Just because some guy directed it doesn’t mean his taste is better than mine.”
The Directors Guild’s President’s Committee has been fighting--unsuccessfully--for legislation to prevent Turner and others from tampering with classic movies. “If Turner thinks he’s an artist, let him make his own movies,” says director Richard Brooks, a member of the committee. “There were reasons why I made ‘The Blackboard Jungle’ and ‘In Cold Blood’ in black and white. They wanted me to make them in color at the time. ‘In Cold Blood’ was a story of terror; I felt it needed the starkness of black and white. Once they put candy colors on the movie, they can decide to take out the last scene, too. Maybe some TV viewers don’t want to watch a man being hanged. Where does it end?”
Joe Dante, director of “Gremlins” and “The ‘Burbs,” also serves on the guild’s President’s Committee. It was Dante who videotaped a personal plea from director John Huston to Turner to stop colorizing movies such as Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon.” “Huston was dying,” Dante recalls. “He was on a respirator, and it wasn’t easy for him to speak, but he felt strongly enough about this issue to make the effort. I thought Turner’s response was so cold and inhuman. The proprietary attitude he takes toward films he bought while wrecking MGM is pretty odious to me.”
Not only did Huston’s plea regarding “The Maltese Falcon” fall on deaf ears, but among the films to be colorized this year are Huston’s 1948 masterpiece, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” and his adaptation of Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage.” Yet in an irony that seems typical of Hollywood, Turner will also broadcast a documentary tribute to Huston on his new cable service, TNT, in June.
Dante agrees that the novelty and the publicity surrounding colorization have enticed a few more viewers to watch older movies, but he questions the significance of the experience. “Someone seeing ‘Casablanca’ for the first time in color will not realize the impact it had and will not be inclined to see it again,” Dante says.
“The argument that the original black-and-white negative still exists in a vault somewhere is nonsense,” Dante continues. “How many people are going to go to the Library of Congress to see the negative or have several hundred dollars to pay for a new print to be struck in black and white? There are no revival theaters anymore, so there’s no way for most people to see those movies the way they were meant to be seen.
“Turner does seem to like movies,” Dante sighs in exasperation. “That’s what’s so frustrating. He’s obviously a very interesting, charismatic character. I just wish he would leave our films alone.”
AT TIMES, THEcolorization controversy has overwhelmed all other issues involving Ted Turner, and that is why he becomes so irritated when the subject is broached. To define him as the man behind colorization would be like remembering Darryl Zanuck as the man who tried to turn several of his mistresses into stars. That was one of Zanuck’s follies, but it doesn’t begin to suggest his effect on Hollywood.
Turner often calls to mind the fabled excesses of early moguls like Zanuck. More than 30 years ago, Turner was thrown out of Brown University for having a woman in his room, and he still has a reputation as a womanizer, though he laments jokingly that he owned MGM for such a short time that he never got to use the casting couch. Twice divorced and perennially courting attractive women, Turner has recently been keeping company with a 30ish Southern belle, Gay Manigault. Asked how they met, she smiles and replies, “My daddy has the plantation next to his.”
That suggests one crucial difference between Turner and Hollywood’s founding fathers. They may have aspired to the life of gentility described in “Gone With the Wind,” but they did not actually grow up on Tara, as Turner did. Most of the original moguls were immigrants driven by a compulsion to escape the poverty of their childhoods. Turner, by contrast, grew up in luxury; his father owned a successful advertising-billboard business. Yet young Robert Edward Turner III was plagued by demons of his own. When he was 20, his only sister died of lupus after five years of excruciating pain. Then four years later, his father, despondent over some reversals in business, shot himself at the family plantation. Turner once described the effect of his father’s death: “That left me alone because I had counted on him to make the judgment of whether or not I was a success.”
His response to that early, traumatic encounter with death and suffering was to embrace a life of hard drinking and wild partying. He was not unlike the spoiled young hero in “The Magnificent Ambersons” who, when asked what he wants to be when he grows up, replies blithely, “A yachtsman.” Turner’s goal, he freely admits, was to be the best sailor in the world, and he pursued it doggedly. As captain of the Courageous, he won the America’s Cup in 1977 and appeared roaring drunk to accept his trophy.
Before he retired from sailing in 1980, Turner had embarked on a secondary career as a media czar. In 1970, bored with the billboard business, he had, almost on a whim, traded $2.5 million worth of company stock for control of a puny UHF station in Atlanta that was losing $600,000 a year. One of his incentives was to get a chance to see old movies. “At that time, I was a late-night person,” Turner says. “There was no late movie in the Atlanta market. I liked to watch old Humphrey Bogart movies and Clark Gable movies. And I said, ‘I’ll be able to play the movies I want to see.’ Everybody told me I was going to lose my shirt. I didn’t know anything about the television business. But it was so exciting after being in billboards.”
In 1976, he was one of the first people to perceive the possibilities of cable television; he came up with the idea of beaming his station by satellite to the cable TV systems that were springing up around the country. That was the beginning of superstation WTBS, which originally went to 12,000 homes. Today, it reaches more than 50 million subscribers. In 1976, Turner bought baseball’s Atlanta Braves for $10 million, and a year later he spent the same amount for the Hawks basketball team. Asked why he bought the losing Braves, Turner answered: “Because the stadium is one big playpen where I can have 53,000 friends over for a little fun.” He kept building new playpens. In 1980, he reportedly spent $40 million to launch Cable News Network.
All of these ventures were costly, and some say they weren’t financially prudent. CNN did turn out to be a triumph, but a music channel that Turner inaugurated with great fanfare in fall, 1983, folded a month later. Turner is a gambler who spends wildly for something he wants. “You’ve got to remember,” he says, “if you’re tiny, which I was, and you’re conventional, you’re not going to get anywhere. If you’re at the bottom of the industry and you want to rise, you’ve got to take chances.”
While he was making the transition from yachtsman to cable tycoon, Turner’s political beliefs were also undergoing a remarkable transformation. The hunting enthusiast became an avid conservationist and a crusader against violence in the media. He traveled back and forth to the Soviet Union and in July, 1986, sponsored the American-Soviet Goodwill Games. He lost $26 million on the games, but they succeeded in bringing together athletes from the superpowers when the two previous Olympics could not.
Turner admits that his evolution from Southern conservative to anti-nuclear, pro-Soviet liberal has been startling. “It’s true that a lot of people get more conservative as they get older,” Turner muses, “but I think I’ve become better-informed. When I was a boy, no one had ever taken a picture of the planet from outer space. I saw the map of the world and the United States was in red, Canada was in green and Mexico was in yellow. I figured when you crossed that line, it was a different color--different people, foreigners. But when you take a picture from a spaceship, you can’t see the borders between countries. Most conservatives think of America first. I think about everybody first. And I think elephants make as great a contribution as people do. They should be preserved--the whales, too. We’ve got to share the world with the other critters that live here.”
TURNER’S EARNEST, IFnaive, social philosophy sounds a bit gauche at Hollywood power lunches, and the industry has been equally uncomfortable with his voracious corporate appetite. He has tried to buy all three networks and came closest with CBS in 1985 but was rebuffed.
A few months later, tantalized by the dream of running a major studio, he paid nearly $1.5 billion for MGM. Then, after looking at the disastrous slate of films that the studio had scheduled for release, Turner sold the company back to Kirk Kerkorian, unloaded the physical lot to Lorimar but kept MGM’s library of about 3,500 films, perhaps the best collection of golden oldies in the movie universe. Most industry observers nonetheless felt that he had paid too steep a price--about $1.2 billion--for the MGM inventory, which also includes RKO movies and all Warner Bros. films made before 1950 but none of the movies made by MGM’s subsidiary, United Artists.
Turner defends himself: “We set a new standard for the value of older films, and that should make everybody in the movie business happy. I don’t think I paid too much for the MGM library. The main thing is I got the movies, and I’m using ‘em. I own probably over a third of all the great movies that were ever made, and I’ve got a distribution system to play them.” The movies have proved to be successful overseas as well as at home; European revenues generated by the MGM library jumped from $5 million in 1986, the first full year of Turner’s ownership, to $66 million in 1988.
Although Turner never managed to run MGM, he was determined to establish himself as a potent presence in Hollywood. He now has 330 people working in Los Angeles, some of them handling the flow of prints from the MGM library and others trying to someday establish TNT as a major competitor of the three networks.
At the moment, TNT is producing one original movie for television each month. Turner’s goal is to be making one movie a week within two years, more than any of the three networks produces. He recently met with a caucus of 50 producers and writers and, as he explains, “I told them that in the next three years we’re going to spend about half a billion dollars here in Hollywood, and just come and get it. We’re buying any good idea that comes down the pike.”
Most of these movies have what he calls a “pro-social” point of view, a progressive message about the environment or nuclear war. “Not everything we’re doing is going to be of high social significance,” Turner concedes. “We’re doing the Donald Trump story, and Donald Trump ain’t Jesus Christ. But he’s colorful. It’s going to be entertainment. At least it won’t have any gratuitous violence.”
Most of Turner’s projects have a loftier purpose, and some of them sound as if they might provoke unintended giggles. He talks with passion about a planned animated children’s series called “Captain Planet,” in which Captain Planet and the Planeteers--a group of tots representing “all the major racial groups on earth"--will join in a crusade “to stop pollution and the killing of the rhinos,” Turner says. Other scheduled films include a miniseries about Michelangelo, another about author William L. Shirer’s experiences in Germany before World War II, a drama about Chernobyl and a film about Amnesty International.
While Sam Goldwyn declared that messages were for Western Union, the truth is that the old studio bosses often used movies to proselytize for causes they believed in, and that is Turner’s mission as well. “The survival of the human species on the planet Earth is my pet concern,” he declares. “And probably the single key element in the battle for our survival is the media. I have to believe that if people are informed, they’ll make the right choices. If that’s not the case, then we’re doomed. But as Capt. (Jacques) Cousteau said to me years ago, when I was on the verge of despair, ‘What else can we do but try our best?’ ”
Turner’s Capra-esque idealism may make cynics gag, but it has attracted many top actors and producers to TNT. Martin Sheen recently sold Turner “Nightbreaker,” a drama criticizing the Army’s nuclear-testing program during the 1950s. The three networks had turned it down. Frank Von Zerneck, who has produced dozens of movies for the networks, now has a full slate of films in development with TNT, including a script by Gore Vidal about Billy the Kid. Von Zerneck is an unabashed Turner admirer. “He’s not afraid to put his money where his mouth is,” Von Zerneck says. “He wants to challenge and educate as well as entertain. We’re developing a 26-hour miniseries for him on the American Indian. No network would touch that. Also, they don’t have a broadcast standards department at TNT. I found that so refreshing after all the restrictions you have at the networks.”
Lawrence Schiller, who produced and directed “The Executioner’s Song” for NBC, performed the same dual function on “The Margaret Bourke-White Story” for TNT. Farrah Fawcett had wanted to play the photographer, and CBS developed the project but then dropped it. She found a home for it at TNT. Schiller recalls having dinner with Turner when someone asked him what his standards and practices were. His answer was, “Whatever is right for the program.”
“Turner doesn’t want any gratuitous violence,” Schiller says, “but otherwise, he gives you great freedom. We didn’t have a committee looking over our shoulder. I remember my first meeting with Brandon Stoddard (formerly the top programming executive at ABC) in 1976. He went through the script line by line, calculating how everything would be interpreted by the audience. Turner doesn’t do that because he’s not coming out of the same bureaucratic structure. He’s completely instinctive.”
Yet Schiller recognizes that there could be dangers to Turner’s approach. “Turner is playing the same game that Cannon played in the feature film arena a few years ago,” he notes. In an effort to attract major actors and directors, Cannon Group Inc. backed a slew of esoteric projects --"Duet for One,” “Fool for Love” and “Otello” among them--that other studios had rejected. Most of the films turned out to be box-office catastrophes, and there is no guarantee that Turner will fare any better by backing the pet projects of top stars, directors and producers.
FINANCIALLY, TURNERhas always taken chances that have kept him teetering on the brink of disaster. After borrowing to buy MGM in 1986, Turner’s company was in serious trouble. He reported losses of $187 million in 1986, contrasted with profits of $1.1 million the year before. To bail himself out, Turner had to give up some of his independence by selling a significant interest in Turner Broadcasting to major cable operators, including Tele-Communications Inc., Time Inc. and Warner Cable. Up to that point, all the stockholders in Turner Broadcasting had been under his control. Suddenly he had to answer to outsiders who did not always share his priorities. While they have restrained some of Turner’s more extravagant spending--they recently blocked his attempted purchase of the financially shaky Financial News Network--they have also cut into his autonomy. Turner now controls a bare majority of the 15-member board, but 12 members must approve any expenditure of more than $2 million.
The merger of Time and Warner will make Turner’s control of the company even more precarious. Although his revenues have grown and his losses have shrunk in the past year, Turner Broadcasting is still operating in the red. “We lost $97 million last year,” Turner says impassively. “But look at the federal government and how much they lost. The important thing is I have cash flow. I just keep moving it around.” (Turner’s personal fortune includes 60% of TBS stock--worth about $535 million--and substantial real estate holdings.)
Dismissing the idea that his board of directors might someday try to move him out, Turner says brashly: “They like me. I brighten their lives.”
Turner’s primary concern now is CNBC, NBC’s new cable consumer, business and financial channel, which was launched April 17 with 13 million subscribers. Although NBC insists that its new venture is a consumer-service channel and is not intended to compete with CNN, Turner is convinced that the most successful network has designs on his audience. And he knows that he is at an economic disadvantage. “General Electric is now a $41-billion company,” Turner observes. “They’ve got a lot of muscle.”
Turner’s anxieties about NBC were heightened a few weeks ago when the network lured away one of CNN’s anchors, Mary Alice Williams, to become a correspondent and anchor on NBC; she will also have a regular slot on a CNBC show called “Media Beat.” Asked whether NBC’s invasion of his empire has anything to do with his savage attacks on the morals of his competitor, Turner answers without hesitation: “Yes.” Then he goes on, “They’re about a hundred times bigger than me, and I feel kind of like Vietnam when the U.S. moved in. I’m going to do everything I can to survive.”
But he insists that his fears aboutNBC’s move into cable do not invalidate his criticisms of GE. “I don’t like the fact that GE is the second-largest military contractor in the country,” Turner says. “They don’t want to end the arms race because they’d be giving up billions of dollars. And that really makes their news department suspect.”
“Ted has a reputation as a colorful figure, and he’s been keeping that reputation alive,” responds Joseph Rutledge, NBC’s director of corporate information. “To suggest that hundreds of dedicated journalists who constitute NBC’s news organization would in any way be swayed by GE’s perceived defense interests shows no understanding of NBC or the field of journalism or much else, for that matter.”
If Turner summons up the spirit of the moguls who first conquered Hollywood, he cannot take much comfort from their ultimate destiny. Most of them were eventually forced out of the business by more cautious corporate players as the studios were absorbed into conglomerates. Turner has managed to endure a number of close calls, but it is unclear just how long such a renegade can continue to rankle the Hollywood Establishment and retain his power. NBC’s inroads into cable, Turner’s financial losses and the fact that he must answer to board members with sometimes competing interests all conspire against his survival.
Ted Turner will not be easily deposed, and if the day ever comes, he will undoubtedly go out kicking and screaming. But when all the fighting is over, perhaps he will welcome a rest from the Hollywood wars. Asked how he would like to be remembered, Turner recalls answering that question on one of his recent trips to Moscow. “A guy from Pravda asked me what I wanted on my tombstone,” Turner says. “I was in my hotel room, and I looked up at the sign over the door. I said I want that on my tombstone: ‘Please Do Not Disturb.’ ” He reflects for a moment and decides to amend the epitaph. “No, I have a better one,” he says. “ ‘You can’t interview me here.’ How about that?”